28 April 2011

It Shouldn't Happen To a Vet

The selection of films showing at the cinema at the moment isn't great and I probably wouldn't have bothered going to see Water for Elephants had I not got a free ticket. Unlike most of this evening's audience, I'm not a Robert Pattinson fan (although to be fair, I haven't seen any of his films) and based on the trailer, I decided the film looked very corny but quite fun. This turned out to be a fair assessment of Water for Elephants.

As the film opens, an old man stares through the rain at a circus. Two circus folks think he has escaped from a local care home and they take him into the office to wait while they try to get him home. It turns out, however, that he used to work at a circus. The circus dude is skeptical at first but less so when the old man claims to have worked for the Benzini Brothers circus -- famed for causing The Worst Circus Disaster of All Time back in '31. Oh, and the old man was right in the middle of the disaster and can tell the circus dude all about it...

Flash back 80 years and the old man's younger self bears a striking resemblance to R-Patts. His name is Jacob Jankowski, the hard-working son of Polish immigrants, who is just about to take his final exams for  Cornell vet school when he finds out that his parents have been killed in a car crash and his house repossessed. He hits the road -- or rather, the rails -- and hitches a ride on a train, which turns out to be a circus train. The circus in question is run with an iron fist by August (Christoph Waltz), a charismatic but cruel despot, who grudgingly agrees to take R-Vetz on as the circus's vet. R-Vetz's first act is to recommend that the star attraction -- a horse named Silver Star, who happens to be ridden by August's wife Marlena (Reese Witherspoon) -- be put down. August would prefer to "get a few more shows" out of the horse before it dies but R-Vetz shoots it anyway, while Marlena tenderly strokes his head (the horse's head that is).

R-Vetz almost loses his job but then August acquires a new star attraction, an elephant named Rosie (played by Tai, who is the best thing in the film, along with a cameo from James "Thomas Cromwell" Frain). He also loses his heart to Marlena. But we've already seen how cruelly August treats the animals, so what will he do if he thinks he might lose his wife to this Cornell drop-out? Well, it's perfectly easy to guess given that the film is entirely predictable.

The trouble is that there wasn't much chemistry between Pattinson and Witherspoon and I didn't really care whether or not they had their happily ever after. On the other hand, I was much more interested in finding out whether Rosie survived her master's cruelty and The Worst Circus Disaster of All Time. Rosie is awesome. Visually, the film is stunning, so in all, it isn't a bad film, but it's not great either.

Sean Penn was cast as August but dropped out, Scarlett Johansson turned down the role of Marlena and Andrew Garfield auditioned for the part of Jacob. Although I think Penn is a good actor, Waltz did a great job in Water for Elephants, so I wouldn't have substituted him; nor Witherspoon for Johansson. But I would have really enjoyed watching Garfield in the lead role and I'm sure I would have been rooting for a Jacob-Marlena happy ending if he were playing Jacob.

Spoiler alert.

The real problem I have with Water for Elephants is that it is too straightforward. Here's what happens: some of August's angry employees let all the animals out of their cages during a show and the ensuing stampede, panic and fall of the big top lead to the ruin of Benzini Brothers. August is about to suffocate Marlena with his bullhook when Rosie breaks free from her chain and, almost comically, kills him off and so the happy couple can run off into the sunset. They work for another circus (and later a zoo), have five children and keep Rosie and assorted horses in their ranch.

I expected that when we finally flashed forward to the present day, there would be some nice twist. That the circus dude realises that the old man is delusional because his story doesn't add up, for example. But no. Marlena and Jacob really did live happily ever after until her death a few years earlier. It's not that I'm opposed to happy endings (well, not really) but throughout the film, we are told that everything about the circus is an illusion -- it's all for show and nothing is real. So, are we supposed to accept this jolly little tale about triumph in the face of tyrants at face value? Sadly, I think we are. This is why I don't normally watch films with happy endings; they just bring out my cynical side.

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